CHRISTIAN CAPLE

Caple: UW Huskies’ unsung heroes of the 2023 season

Jan 24, 2024, 4:27 PM

UW Huskies...

Devin Culp of the Washington Huskies runs up field on Oct. 28, 2023. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

The past couple days have brought at least some positive news for the future of the UW Huskies’ roster.

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A few key transfers recruited by former coach Kalen DeBoer — quarterback Will Rogers, defensive tackle Sebastian Valdez and offensive tackle Drew Azzopardi — have indicated they plan to stay at UW to play for new coach Jedd Fisch. Also on Wednesday, 2024 linebacker signee Khmori House, an early enrollee, announced he will stay at Washington after entering the transfer portal.

There is plenty still unresolved, such as whether offensive linemen Geirean Hatchett and Landen Hatchett (and several others) might return from the portal, and which players Fisch and his staff might recruit to fill glaring needs at several other positions.

Diligent as we must be in chronicling this future-focused news cycle, it also feels prudent to reflect some on the season Washington finished a mere 16 days ago.

Last January, I put together a list of players I felt were unsung heroes during UW’s bounceback 2022 season, and I’m reprising that theme here. This list won’t feature names like Michael Penix Jr., Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan, Ja’Lynn Polk, Dillon Johnson, Troy Fautanu, Parker Brailsford, Bralen Trice, Edefuan Ulofoshio or Jabbar Muhammad. Instead, it focuses on lesser-recognized players who still made essential contributions.

Players are listed in alphabetical order by last name. All snap counts are via Pro Football Focus.

WR Germie Bernard

Catching 34 passes for 419 yards and two touchdowns is pretty impressive work for a No. 4 receiver, but that only begins to explain what Bernard did for the Huskies this season. He also carried 13 times for 43 yards and two touchdowns, filling the role of red-zone gadget player while also catching passes downfield.

What Bernard did in Washington’s 42-33 victory at Stanford was particularly crucial. His three receptions for 43 yards might not look like much, but the Huskies were already down Jalen McMillan and Giles Jackson, and Bernard, also hurt, barely practiced that week. But he swiftly improved as Saturday neared, made the trip after coaches believed he probably wouldn’t, and gave the Huskies 25 snaps. One of his catches converted a crucial third-and-8, one play before Penix’s touchdown pass to Devin Culp.

Bernard also returned kickoffs and punts, including a 32-yarder in the Pac-12 championship game (though he was fortunate the Sugar Bowl muffed punt did not ultimately cost UW). He would have been a big part of UW’s future, had he stayed, but instead accompanied DeBoer to Alabama. But the Huskies still benefited from Bernard’s one season in Seattle.

TE Devin Culp

Six UW players caught more passes in 2023 than Culp, who tallied 16 receptions in 15 games. Two of those grabs are integral to the telling of this season’s story: his 22-yard touchdown catch on third-and-18 in the second quarter at USC, and, weeks prior, his 18-yard catch on third-and-16 at Arizona. Both were circus catches when the Huskies badly needed them. The USC touchdown will feature prominently in any Penix career highlight video, but the quarterback needed Culp to make a spectacular play for the throw to matter.

Culp also caught a 24-yard touchdown pass at Stanford the week prior, and was a key run-blocker for the Huskies all season. He struggled with drops throughout his career, but the lasting memory of Culp will be those two big catches in 2023.

(Another UW tight end, Jack Westover, made my Unsung Heroes list last season, and obviously played an essential role for the Huskies in 2023. But I think there was enough recognition for Westover’s contributions to remove him from “unsung” consideration.)

S Kamren Fabiculanan

Injuries actually limited him to fewer snaps than he played last season, yet Fabiculanan’s impact felt much more significant. He made a handful of big tackles and pass breakups, most notably his third-and-9 upending of Oregon tight end Terrance Ferguson in the Pac-12 title game. Fabiculanan also broke up a third-down pass in that game, though the Huskies were offside on the play, and had a tackle for loss. And it’s easy to forget, but with Michigan still leading by only seven points late in the third quarter of the national title game, Fabiculanan shot through to make a TFL on a screen pass and force a third-and-long that led to a punt.

He finished the season with three TFLs and two interceptions (in consecutive weeks, against Boise State and Tulsa). Washington’s defense looked different with him on the field — and he’s one of a few key veterans to confirm he’s staying at Washington in 2024.

LB Drew Fowler

I wrote last year that the team leader in special-teams snaps should always be considered an unsung hero, and for the second consecutive season, Fowler lays claim to that distinction. PFF had him for a whopping 320 special-teams snaps, plus 84 on defense. He played every snap on kickoffs, kick returns, punts and field-goal block, and also was a regular on punt returns. You probably know his story: Fowler chose to walk-on at UW in the 2019 class despite receiving multiple Pac-12 scholarship offers, and became a key component of the Huskies’ improved special teams.

Maybe just as impressive is the fact that Carson Bruener played 253 snaps on special teams, while also logging 439 on defense. PFF has Bruener for a team-high eight special-teams tackles, and he finished third on the team with 86 total tackles (despite playing the 12th-most defensive snaps). Bruener received just a bit too much acclaim this season for me to consider him truly unsung, but I thought he warranted a mention.

K Grady Gross

He might not have seemed all that unsung in the hour or so following the Apple Cup, as Washington celebrated Gross’ 42-yard, game-winning field goal to clinch a 12-0 regular season. In the locker room, DeBoer told Gross, in front of the entire team, that he had been put on scholarship.

Big moments didn’t faze the sophomore (former) walk-on. Gross made two field goals in the Pac-12 championship against Oregon, a game decided by three points. He made three kicks in a six-point Sugar Bowl victory over Texas. And Gross made field goals from 25 and 45 yards in UW’s national-championship game defeat to Michigan.

He finished the season 18-for-22, his consistency a not-insignificant reason why Washington prevailed in the margins, time and again. When the Huskies held on to beat Arizona State, 15-7, it was thanks in part to Gross’ three field goals — one of them from 47 yards, his career long. His 43-yard make at USC eventually allowed Washington to take a two-score lead on Dillon Johnson’s fourth-quarter touchdown.

Some fans wondered prior to the season whether UW could adequately replace Peyton Henry’s steady left foot. Gross gave the Huskies exactly what they needed.

S Dominique Hampton

The senior safety led the defense in snaps played with 973, one season after logging the third-most (631). Hampton contributed another 102 snaps on special teams to push his total into four digits (1,075). It’s a big reason why he won the team’s “Tough Husky Award” at season’s end. Hampton brought a physical presence to UW’s defense, and led the team with 109 tackles after moving from nickel to safety. He added two interceptions, including the clincher in UW’s victory over Utah. And Hampton also stood out simply for being available every week, with UW’s other safety spot thrown into a state of flux by injuries to Asa Turner and, to a lesser extent, Fabiculanan. He missed just one game the past two seasons.

WR Giles Jackson

Sidelined by injury for Washington’s first five games, Jackson, who was on this list last year, too, earns his spot this time for what he did in his season debut. Still wearing a brace on his left thumb, Jackson played 48 snaps in place of injured star Jalen McMillan, and caught six passes for 58 yards and a touchdown — the first of the game — in UW’s instant-classic, 36-33 victory over Oregon. In addition to the 26-yard score, Jackson also converted a key third-and-four before another UW touchdown in the first quarter, and later caught a pass to convert a fourth-and-six in the fourth quarter (though the Huskies wound up stalling at the goal line).

Don’t forget, either, about Jackson’s third-and-six reception in the fourth quarter at USC — originally ruled short of the line to gain, then overturned on replay (thanks to that sweet pylon cam). Penix found him again for a seven-yard gain to move the sticks, and Dillon Johnson scored on a 1-yard run three plays later.

Jackson preserved a redshirt by playing in only four regular-season games. He caught 14 passes for 106 yards. And Washington would not have gone 14-1 without him.

DL Tuli Letuligasenoa

I had originally decided that his contributions were sufficiently appreciated — i.e., no longer “unsung” — but upon considering that Letuligasenoa didn’t even receive honorable-mention recognition from Pac-12 coaches the past two seasons, I changed my mind. He had UW’s second-highest defensive grade from PFF among regular players, and was UW’s top-graded run defender. He occupied double-teams and penetrated to cause problems in the backfield, even if he finished with a modest 19 tackles (though 3.5 of them were for loss).

Letuligasenoa played through injury for much of the season, and coaches had to manage his workload. But he played 30 snaps in the Pac-12 title game (and was crucial to containing Bucky Irving), 39 against Texas and a season-high 45 against Michigan. The Huskies will badly miss him next season.

EDGE/DL Voi Tunuufi

The Huskies had their depth tested at edge rusher, with Zach Durfee ruled ineligible, but Tunuufi was versatile enough to slide outside when needed. He also played snaps on the interior, and wound up 11th on UW’s defense with 442 total snaps. Tunuufi’s fourth-quarter sack of USC quarterback Caleb Williams (for a 12-yard loss) forced the Trojans to punt, leading to UW’s decisive touchdown.

The junior (now senior) finished third on the team with 26 pressures, per PFF — just one behind Zion Tupuola-Fetui — though he only had two sacks.

Honorable mention

• Faatui Tuitele recently retired from football after playing hurt throughout his five-year career, yet he led UW interior d-linemen in snaps played this season.

• Daniyel Ngata never cracked the rotation at running back, but the Arizona State transfer did become a reliable kick returner, taking 17 kickoffs for 397 yards.

• Sekai Asoau-Afoa developed into UW’s top edge rusher off the bench, playing the ninth-most snaps on the Huskies’ defense while totaling 22 pressures with one sack.

• Quentin Moore deserves a nod here for his touchdown catch in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

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